Shanin Specter’s legal experience speaks for itself with more than 200 jury verdicts and settlements in excess of $1 million and more than 50 case resolutions greater than $10 million. His trial work is not only lucrative and life-changing for his clients, but has also shaped the policy of government and industries from influencing safer driving practices to calling for product recalls. Now, Shanin is extending the opportunity to pass along the lessons he learned in practice to the next generation of attorneys.
We caught up with him to discuss the art of asking a question and his upcoming course “How to Ask a Question” at UC Hastings.
When did you first decide to venture into legal education?
I was recruited by Dean Mike Fitts at University of Pennsylvania law school 17 years ago and I've been teaching ever since.
Now, you’re teaching an upcoming course entitled "How to Ask a Question" here at UC Hastings?
Yes, the class starts on Wednesday, January 11th at 1:10 p.m. It's a mini-course that meets 2 hours a week for 7 weeks. I taught the class in 2015 at UC Hastings and it received great student reviews.
How was your experience teaching at UC Hastings?
Fantastic. I love the UC Hastings students. They are very bright and have lots of common sense. They’re also practical, committed, scrappy, and tough.
We’re not so bad. How did you come up with the curriculum for this course?
Through many years of trial practice and client relations I’ve gathered experience in how to talk to people and how to ask questions and learn from the answers. I’ve learned how to listen for a response, how to ask a follow up, and how to get your point across to a fact finder whether it's a judge, jury, client, potential client, or colleague.
You learn the subtleties of communication. A question sometimes is more than a question. Sometimes it’s an answer, which is disguised as a question. Alternatively, sometimes a question appears to be an answer and that can make the respondent's answer less effective, such as by leading a witness into an answer. The course aims to deal with all of that.
You learned this through your experience in practice?
I've questioned a lot of witnesses and questioned a lot of clients, or potential clients. I try to be mindful of their reaction, as well as the reaction of a fact finder like a jury or a judge.
I'm trying to put those lessons to use. It's a great class for somebody who wants to consider work in the trial practice field, but it's an equally good class for somebody who doesn't and just wants to know how to talk to people.
Most students over the years in this course never intended to do trial work, but have benefited from the skillset of knowing how to better communicate with others.
You mentioned potential clients, so the course is not only about questions in a courtroom?
Yes, the course really teaches five skills: how to question a client; how to take a deposition; how to a do a direct examination; how to do a cross examination; and how to deal with a difficult opponent or judge.
Why is it important to know how to question a client?
To decide whether you want the client to hire you and whether you want to be hired by the client, which are different questions.
Knowing how to correctly question a potential client will help you learn about whether the case is something that you accept or decline.
Conversely, if a client is impressed with how you question them, they're more likely to ask you to be their attorney. That's why it's so important to know how to question a potential client.
With both prospective and existing client relationships, you must obtain the necessary information from your client in order for you to best advance your client's cause and understand the case.
That can be harder than it seems for a variety of reasons, including clients who are embarrassed to talk about their issues, clients who may not be truthful, or clients who need to be saved from their own bad habits and conduct. Again, there are lots of permutations and it's a very subtle process.
Who did you learn the art of asking a question from?
Probably my father (former senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania) more than anyone else. He was a fantastic questioner, as a trial lawyer, as a prosecutor, and then as a senator. I would also give credit to a watching a series of experienced trial lawyers when I was a young attorney.
I also learned from watching bad questioning, which can teach you what not to do. There was also a lot of trial and error on my own part and always thinking about how to do better.
Is there a difference between asking a question in the courtroom and outside of the courtroom?
There should be very little difference. One of the mistakes that lawyers make is that they think there's some special language for the courtroom.
The truth is that the more you're questioning mirrors everyday life, the more compelling the question and the more compelling the answer.
From your experience, has the art of asking a question changed over the years?
People are less skilled now because there are fewer trials, so there are fewer opportunities for training outstanding questioners. Also, the skill of asking questions is generally not taught outside so people are left with only intuition and practice as opposed to a well-honed set of principles and guidelines.
In your experience, are the best questions prepared or do they come in the moment?
It's both. Sometimes questions must be prepared with total precision in advance and sometimes the questions are best asked in a free flowing manner. It just depends upon the context.
Does knowing the right way to ask a question help in answering a question?
Yes. It's very helpful to know how to ask a question when you're answering questions and vice versa.
Just to give one example, people appreciate others when they answer the question that's asked and don't unnecessarily elaborate. It shows respect to the questioner and also communicates respect to a fact finder such as a jury, or judge.
Conversely, I very often see that a good question is asked and an answer is given that's non-responsive. Regrettably, the questioner pays no attention to the fact that the answer is non-responsive, doesn't ask the question again or otherwise insist on a responsive answer, and simply asks the next question on a different topic. So the whole exercise was meaningless.
How do you make sure that a question is actually answered?
The first thing you have to do is ask a single, short question that calls for a single short response. That's harder than it sounds. Then you have to listen to the answer.
Listening to the answer requires that you are well-rested and relaxed. You also must be diligent about making sure you know what your question was and that the answer was not just responsive, but fully responsive. Again, those are concepts that are harder than they sound.
Unless you get a full and complete response, you then have to re-ask the question. Different lawyers approach that differently. I find that re-asking the question without rancor is usually the best way to go, not to get contentious about it if you can avoid it. That's just a very short summary of a 28-hour experience that we have in class.
Is it possible to ask too many questions?
Yes and too many questions can undo a good answer. If you ask the same question again and the witness changes their answer to a bad answer, you have to kick yourself for doing it.
You could also ask a question to which you don't know the answer and hurt yourself with the fact finder when they give an unhelpful answer.
If you ask questions for your own invigoration and enjoyment, as opposed to the education of the jury, it can be injurious to your client and to your cause.
You mentioned that you have to be well-rested and prepared. Do you also teach students how not to be nervous in front of clients and in the courtroom?
Yes, I do. That's a big part of the class, trying to learn how to be comfortable. That's why it's so popular with people who don't want to be trial lawyers. They see it as a chance to get past their fears in a safe environment.
To be relaxed is a process you must practice. You have to realize that you're not going to be great the first time through and just keep doing it. One day you'll turn around and say, "Hey, you know what? I'm pretty good at this!"
How can being a good questioner help in your personal life?
I think it can make you into a kinder person. It may also help you to know what to ask and what not to ask. It also works pretty well at Starbucks or over the dinner table. Being a good questioner can help you avoid sounding like a lawyer, which has turned into a dirty phrase.
I hope I teach students how to sound like a good person, not to sound like what others think a lawyer sounds like.
Finally, what do you hope students will learn from your upcoming course?
I hope they learn how to ask a question, how to listen for an answer, how to get an answer, and how to help their clients and their causes in that process.
Thank you, professor.